Friday, July 26, 2013

The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013); Superman ll (Richard Donner, Richard Lester, 1980)

Things that make you go 'hmmm'

James Wan's The Conjuring, about the Perron family's struggle to deal with the supernatural forces infesting their beautiful Rhode Island home and the ghosthunting couple (real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren) who agree to help them, is arguably his best most earnest attempt to emulate the realism of The Exorcist, still the granddaddy of all possession movies. Wan does well enough: the movie starts slow, lets us get to know the people in question, lets us soak in the group dynamics of the family before the spooky stuff takes over; as for the spooky stuff Wan patiently starts small and builds gradually--sounds in the night, boarded-up cellars, unexplained bruises, hide-and-clap games with uninvited guests.

Nice to see Wan avoid obvious digital effects; nothing sillier than to start with an ostensibly realistic story and destroy the illusion of realism with digital crap (about the most obvious evidence of any computer tampering I can see are a blanket assuming a startling shape and a bird attack on the house).

How accurate is the movie? Well, the doll seen above which opens the picture for one: the real Annabelle was an honest-to-goodness Raggedy Ann doll, a rather innocuous-looking one; nothing raggedy about the doll the moviemakers came up with (a pity; there is something creepy about Raggedy Ann but it takes a patient and truly perverse talent to bring it to fore). Questions on realism aren't relevant, when you think about it; what made The Exorcist so convincing wasn't so much the historically accurate details (the true story had later been turned into a more faithful-to-the-facts movie, a not very good one) as William Friedkin's meticulously evoked atmosphere of realism--the spooky stuff, as we put it, kept strictly in the background, the scares (based on what was depicted in William Peter Blatty's novel) carefully orchestrated and never for a moment allowed to work against the realism. Significant to note that Friedkin uses music only twice in the picture, the second time during the closing credits; significant also to note that the sound design is superb, its use of silence as important if not more so than the outlandish roars and groans of the possessed girl.

So: any good? problems with The Exorcist aside (the most important being the fact that choice is never an issue), Friedkin's movie did this much right, it offered at least a shadow, the merest suggestion that perhaps the girl wasn't possessed by a demon, but was instead troubled by family problems (Blatty worked harder at this suggestion, offering alternate explanations as far into the novel as possible); The Conjuring makes it clear that the Perron family is being totally victimized; there's not even a whisper of domestic discord. One of the girls, the eldest, shows signs early on of being sullen perhaps even rebellious, but nothing much comes out of this; the Perrons hint at financial troubles, though never enough for husband to lift a hand against wife. Mother stands firmly with father stands firmly with the five girls behind like a reincarnation of the Von Trapp Family Singers. 

One more thing: Andrew O'Hehir in his Salon review huffs at the suggestion that the poor women burned at the stake in Salem really were witches after all, an assertion akin to believing that Hitler might have had a point about the Jews; methinks he's a tad too indignant (he proudly declares his Wiccan ancestry and calls a curse down on the filmmakers), but the picture does give off a faint whiff of the self-serving: certainly the Warrens (Ed passed on in 2006; Lorraine is still around and active) benefit from all the free publicity. What really leaves a bad taste in the mouth is Ed Warren's assertion in a closing title, that “The devil exists. God exists. And for us as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

I don't know; I can see that evil exists, but as often as not it's the belief in a supernatural devil that gives rise to most of the trouble (Exhibit A for the prosecution: the aforementioned shenanigans in Salem). Sure there's evil, tremendous evil, and it comes under many names, some in the recent past (Hitler, Mao, Stalin) some even contemporaneous (Marcos, Taylor, Pinochet, Hussein). Compared to these folks the Devil probably can't help but feel like a mere amateur.

Supermen two

(Story and plot twists of Superman II discussed  in close detail)

Thanks to the influence of the huge Hollywood superproduction that is Man of Steel (which I happen to despise) I was finally motivated to watch the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, and while I concede the technical superiority (the effects, music and overall tone have more of an organic whole) I do think the existence of this version only confirms what made Lester's version so memorable.

The Paris sequence, for one: I love Lester's introduction of Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) as someone who absolutely no one takes notice of, his super quality hinted at only when the hat he flips catches perfectly on a hatrack; I love the scene under the Eiffel Tower where Lois Lane (trying to get close to some terrorists threatening to detonate a thermonuclear device) is caught by a police officer, and with the aid of an English to French translation book neatly sidesteps his watchful gaze. Little touches like these, 'Lesterisms' if you like, liven up the film and remind you of what Lester seems to insist on in all his films (that life is absurd) and I think insists on in particular with this film (life is absurd enough to allow for the possible existence of a superhero). In comparison, Donner's dead earnest retread of the high points of the first Superman feels just that: a retread, a longer one at that. 

Donner has Lois try prove Kent and Superman are the same person by stepping out a window; his sequence showcases Kent's ability to think quickly and work invisibly. Lester's sequence involving the Niagara River is more of an extended gag, more persuasive (Lane floats along and isn't plummeting down the side of a building, giving Kent more time to think things through), with just the slyest suggestion that on some level he's enjoying this--he's paying Lane back for all the neglect and abuse she's heaped on him. 

Then there's the admittedly well-written, well-acted scene where Lane shoots Kent (again an attempt to out his secret identity). I find Lester's version--Kent stumbles and sticks his hand in a fire--again more persuasive: in Donner's scene you want to ask "why didn't he check the gun with his X-ray vision?" With Lester the random, absurdist forces of the universe--the Lesterisms--are simply (and consistently) hard at work (one may exclaim "Superman would never stumble!" and one would be right only I suspect Kent meant to deliberately stumble and overplayed his clumsiness).

Lester has Superman confront General Zod and friends and turns New York (sorry--Metropolis) into a gigantic playground; he enhanced the impression with a few comic touches, especially during the sequence when the supervillains inflict their superbreath on the populace (a man loses his toupee; another's ice cream scoop flips out of its cone; a biker accelerates out of control; a phone caller laughs long after his booth has blown away). Possibly Donner meant a more serious, more dramatic battle, but what I submit Lester was going for was something altogether more unsettling, a vision of the world as seen through these superbeings' eyes: anything and everything is an oversized toy to shatter and crush and hurl against each other, in a shared temper tantrum the size of a major metropolitan city; Superman only really wakes up to what he's doing--endangering innocent bystanders--when Zod threatens them directly. This playfulness--this sense of childish superbeings at play, with serious consequences just slightly out of mind and waiting to happen--is muted in Donner's less humorous version.

Even more altered is Lane's parting conversation with Superman. In Donner's version they're tragic lovers forced to part ways but hopelessly loving each other; in Lester's they're perceptibly mature lovers, trying to work out a knotty, impossible relationship. There's a bitter edge to Lester's scene that's missing in Donner's, the sense of a more sophisticated sensibility trying to focus on important issues and being hopelessly distracted. Donner sees the two as Romeo and Juliet, soon to part with sweet sorrow, more adolescent than adult; Lester sees the two as Robin and Marian, a man and a woman having to deal between them with the lifelong burden of one man's legend. 

Kent's redemption scene undergoes perhaps the most radical change of all: in Donner's version Jor El (Marlon Brando--we get so much more of him here and unfortunately he's an even bigger pompous bore) has planned for his son's rebellion all along; in Lester's version a random accident saves the day. In Donner's version Jor El is the God figure who knows all and prepares for all, ultimately sacrificing for his son's sake; in Lester's version there is no one and nothing watching over events--it's only the merest luck that Lane happened to hide the crucial crystal under her handbag. 

Between an all-knowing, all-wise Kryptonian (a long-dead one at that, though there are suggestions that Jor El lives on however vicariously in the Fortress' computer) and the workings of blind chance, which is the more pessimistic and ultimately darker vision? Perhaps Lester isn't as comic as people suppose him to be, or perhaps he practices the kind of comedy that recognizes the true, ultimately despairing nature of life: that we're all molecules randomly--comically--bouncing off each other, and no one can really say what is or isn't impossible.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro), Antoine Doinel films (Francois Truffaut), The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls), Wagon Master (John Ford)

'Bakal' Boy Philippines

(WARNING: ALL  films will have their stories, plot details, twists and surprises extensively discussed)

Heavy metal

I can see the objections: it's a robot movie; no, a robot movie featuring giant dinosaurs; no, worse, a robot versus dinosaur movie with the cast of Top Gun emasculated to the last soprano trying to act, ferchrissake. It's a summer movie, a big Hollywood production, a multimilliondollar full-metal aesthetic prostitute out to hustle you out of your very last moviegoing dollar. On steroids.

I have to admit to loving Guillermo del Toro's vision of a postindustrial future, where the Jaegers (German for 'hunters,' the term referring to giant human-shaped mecha in the tradition of Japanese anime) clank and shudder and (unlike Tony Stark's flawlessly gleaming armor) sport rust stains and blackening from exhaust fumes, fly to the battlefield via fleet of cargo copters attached to an elaborate harness (you think of medieval knights lowered onto their horses by ropes and pulleys), step out of the Arctic mists like figures out of Norse mythology to collapse on the fallen snow. I have to admit to loving a movie that has the conviction of its cheesy drama, clunky and old-fashioned both, whose visual style is gloriously grandiloquent: human figures in a warm amber glow (they might be standing in a coal mine or--significant for del Toro--a New York City subway tunnel), the larger structures and machinery lit in a colder, more emotionally distant metallic blue. I love it when someone is pensive or makes a dramatic entrance or delivers a climactic speech and del Toro either shrouds him in a shower of welding sparks or cloaks him in roiling steam or floods him with the sun's glare--if it's worth doing it's worth overdoing in a big way. 

The kaiju (giant faintly reptilian/crustacean monsters in the Japanese postnuclear apocalypse movie tradition) lumber majestically; they rise to the ocean surface from an interdimensional portal like behemoths on loan from Poseidon and stomp or lean on or hide among skyscrapers like kids amongst towering sandcastles (you feel the urge to either admire and knock the elaborate structures down). With their mechanical counterparts they're larger than life, larger than legend, even--primal figures resurrected from our collective memories to raise havoc, perhaps even hell. 

And they're crafted. This is no Michael Bay shitpile where the director orders his team of digital SFX minions to manufacture robots by the crateload; the designs were carefully mulled over and show signs of wit. My favorites include the kaiju that (as del Toro puts it) resembles a Chinese dragon, spits out phosphorescent acid and in a wondrous moment spreads vast batwing arms; then there are the Russian and Chinese Jaegers (sadly underused), the former looking like a cross between a T-34 tank and a nuclear reactor's cooling tower, the latter having armor the color and texture of Chinese lacquer and an unsettling overall resemblance to a wolf spider. Gipsy Danger, our hero's Jaeger, is described as having the glower of the Chrysler building and the stride of John Wayne (I don't see it--the celebrity that comes quickest to mind is Babe Ruth--but like the idea). For inspiration del Toro avoided the Gojira films (which he admits to loving) and the various anime, instead seeking older sources: Goya's The Colossus, Hokusai's prints (also suspect a bit of Mignola's creature and graphic designs thrown in there, and of course Kirby).

I love it that del Toro uses as many practical effects as possible to sell the imagery, or has digital effects either helping or doing their level best to look like practical effects: the Drift suits look like the coolest Nautilus equipment ever conceived, and when the kaiju enter Hong Kong, you get a real sense of rubber-suited man stomping elaborate miniaturized set before an uptilted, overcranked camera--the details are lovingly rendered (as miniatures done by a Japanese studio often are), down to the Newton's cradle set in motion by gargantuan forces barely held in check. I love the cargo ship the Gipsy Danger drags ashore for a bit of batting practice--it's a mighty haymaker moment straight out of Walking Tall or Pale Rider, the righteous hero striding in with club in hand to set wrongs right: just as guilt-inducing, just as exhilarating. 

(Might as well throw in the observation that to my inexpert eye del Toro, unlike some filmmakers I can think of, seems to know just what happens when the cables or roadway of a suspension bridge are cut--well, his take on it is more convincing, anyway) 

It's not just the look, sound and heft of things; it's how they move, the kaiju and Jaegers facing each other like champions and dragons of yore, in grand slow motion. Del Toro shoots a little too close in but cuts at a reasonable rate, the fight sequences coming together with ease in your head. Telling that he doesn't take smaller action sequences for granted--a combat mat confrontation between a Jaeger pilot and a potential candidate boasts of intricate choreography, coherently shot and edited (though a later more conventional fistfight is disappointingly handled, del Toro apparently being more interested in martial-art matches than old-fashioned mix-em-ups).

Not as crazy about the look of the world beyond the portal: del Toro makes the unfortunate decision to use distorting lenses and to digitally add a kind of lit-from-within glow to everything, a letdown from the neon-cathedral look of Hong Kong or the vast stormswept waves of the Pacific just minutes before (you wonder if his budget came up short for the script's final pages). 

Del Toro ramps the visual intensity up to operatic levels; he has to, because the script is barely serviceable--about how a pair of pilots (triplets, in the case of the Chinese Jaeger) are needed to operate the robots, and have to be psychically linked to each other (the official term is 'Drifted'--interesting word that evokes the sensation of dreaming, as if the pilots indulged in a shared state of somnaumbulism). Del Toro takes a page from the seminal anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion to suggest that not all the pilots are psychologically stable, that some have trauma issues that potentially make them as much of a danger as the kaiju; once the big bads come however the issue is more or less dropped, and everyone comes together for the final confrontation.

What to make of Pacific Rim? Boring title (sounds like an episode of National Geographic's "Toilet Bowls of the World") It's an empty shell of a movie, a belching, flaming, roaring carapace covering thin gruel about men bonding and fighting together--one wishes del Toro could at least have turned the picture into a workplace comedy, the way he did his Hellboy movies. Helps to have Idris Elba--looking more badass than any kaiju or Jaeger--authoritatively rolling back the apocalypse (if Morgan Freeman ever felt tired of playing President or God he's got a replacement); helps to have Ron Perlman as kaiju organ dealer Hannibal Chau (yes, a black market for kaiju body parts), flaunting a pair of shoes Joan Rivers might describe as "a crotch trap for convicted child molesters." The two veterans sadly aren't allowed to dominate the human drama, but they do reign over their respective domains nicely.

(Let me add that if the movie were set in Manila we'd have broken down the monsters' corpses into bite-sized pieces in minutes and served them with a soy dip mixed with calamansi and a crushed siling labuyo, plus a bottle of ice-cold San Miguel Beer)

(Do want to mention Burn Gorman and his thousand-word-per-minute mad scientist Hermann Gottlieb. Gorman was the intense, sex-obsessed medical officer of the Torchwood Institute--a charming bastard in the series, and couldn't be more different (though just as charming in a smaller scale) in this movie)

David Edelstein in his review might be on to something when he wrote: "In most films, scenes in which tight-ass superiors chastise maverick heroes for being mavericky are there to make the maverickness seem even more heroic. Elba makes you want to tell the mavericks to shut up and listen." Watching del Toro light Elba in his gleaming black neuroarmor as if he were Achilles urging his fellow Myrmidones to fight you can tell that del Toro is in love with Elba, or at least with Elba's character (he's given an awesome name: Stacker Pentecost. Say it again and feel all the hard consonants burst like grenades on your upper palate). 

Which I suspect says something about del Toro as a filmmaker: he loves his freaks and monsters and children. Hellboy, Blade, Jesus Gris; Ofelia, Aurora and Carlos--think about it and the juxtaposition isn't all that odd: children are most alert and appreciative of freaks and monsters, have a similar love of surprise and chaos as monsters. You might say that to del Toro children are monsters (and vice versa), that in his films this is not necessarily a bad thing, and that this attitude helps develop the distinct flavor of his films.

My point being maybe the Jaeger pilots aren't all that compelling because to del Toro they aren't compelling; the pilots are ultimately irrelevant--aren't the reason he wanted to make the film in the first place. He's here for the freaks and monster (or in this case robots and monsters), for freakish authority figures like Pentecost, and Hannibal Chau; he probably couldn't care less if the cast of younger actors were dropped into an interdimensional portal and never came back. 

And that's fine by me too; unlike Michael Bay or Tony Scott, del Toro doesn't fully buy into the need to have the male Caucasian hero (sop to the main audience demographic) dominate the dramatic landscape (probably why the picture is doing so poorly in the boxoffice). This is del Toro's valentine to the large-scale nightmares of his childhood, and he's not about to have some ho-hum clean-cut white-bread hero stand in the way of his geek obsessions.

Bad boy

The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) is arguably Truffaut's angriest film; most disturbingly so, because the gradual sense of abandonment--by mother, by father, eventually by society itself--happens to a child of twelve (though Truffaut cheats a bit by casting Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was fifteen at the time of shooting). Paradoxically, it's also one of his funniest and most purely pleasurable. 

Over fifty years since its premiere and still the film seems astonishingly vibrant, alive. You clap with delight when Antoine Doinel (Leaud) flees an office building with a stolen typewriter and startles a flock of pigeons into explosive flight (it's like a tripped alarm no one pays attention to), or when he climbs into a centrifuge ride and Truffaut evokes the workings of a zoetrope (Truffaut pours almost every trick and bit of lore he knows into his first feature, as if he would never make another for the rest of his life (he goes on to make twenty-four)). Your heart quietly breaks when in what may be the film's most beautiful sequence the soundtrack trembles with crystalline chimes and Paris flares to life with orchards of buzzing incandescents, topiaries of blinking neons, vast arrays of blazing windows, the streets gleaming with the benediction of fresh rainfall--one enchanted image after another beckon just when Doinel is being driven away in a prison van, to be incarcerated in a juvenile institution for (as far as we know) the rest of his life

A stunning debut, and we reel from its effects decades later.

The succeeding films--Antoine and Colette (Antoine et Colette), Stolen Kisses (Baisers vol├ęs), Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal), Love on the Run (L'amour en fuite)--roughly follow Doinel (and Leaud playing Doinel) as he grows up, finds love, finds trouble, and basically fulfills the promise implied in the first film, of raising general hell (the more accurate translation of the title). But he's never as homeless or destitute--he's constantly losing his job, but just as constantly finding goofier ways to make a living (hotel clerk; TV repair man; private investigator; remote-control operator of miniature boats for a hydraulics company; finally, modest success as writer of a thinly-veiled fictionalized autobiography)). He's never as devastatingly rejected (women push him away but end up tumbling in bed with him), or as rebellious (he's more passive-aggressive than angry)--it's as if Truffaut in inflicting his own childhood on Doinel in The 400 Blows is trying to redeem his cruelty by refusing to inflict any more radical traumas on the boy. Life may change and flow and be funny, even slapstick, but the face that gazes at us with such harrowing despair in that film's final image will never wear that exact expression ever again (he can put on any other expression, just not that one). 

Oh, Doinel still suffers--most poignantly I thought in the sad little conclusion to Antoine and Colette--and gets into trouble on occasion (as hotel clerk; as soldier; during dinner with a beautiful Japanese model); the shenanigans become funnier and definitely sexier, are enjoyable and have their own fleetfooted charm, but Doinel now seems to enjoy the unceasing protection of his creator from any permanent harm. 

You eventually realize that Doinel's seeming invincibility is itself sad. He never really faces adversity--he'd much rather avoid it, or as the last film's title puts it, 'run.' Instructive to contrast him with Colette, the last person to really wound him--in Love on the Run we learn through flashback that (as a kind of punishment, one is almost led to feel, for rejecting Doinel) she suffered a tragedy, managed to claw her way back up and become a fairly successful lawyer (albeit with strings attached). She's grown gravely beautiful (the luminous Marie-France Pisier, who Truffaut first cast in Antoine and Colette and who reprises her role years later) not just outwardly but inwardly, and Truffaut promptly rewards her with the privilege of judging Doinel's autobiography: he writes well, she informs him, but (echoing her criticism of a love letter he wrote her years before) will never be a real writer till he creates something completely fictional, from his head not his life. 

(Might as well add that there's little love out there for Love on the Run but I like it; arguably a prototype for the modern 'clip show,' it takes footage from the earlier films and deftly mixes them not just with new footage but also outtakes that Truffaut saved--suggesting the patently outrageous notion that Truffaut waited years to make this picture)

There is the faintest of hints by series' end that perhaps Doinel will settle down and grow up. Truffaut drops it at that point--or Truffaut intended to continue but God or life or random circumstance decided enough was enough (Truffaut died of a brain tumor in 1984--strange to think Leaud is now older by seventeen years). The series' very inconclusiveness is sad: there are no epiphanies for Doinel; no life-changing experiences or grand triumphs or absolute defeats, only this faintly unsatisfactory promise of a better life. Doinel's story--which ended in an ambivalent freeze-frame in The 400 Blows--ends the series with a similar pause, forever teasing us with untold possibilities.

Let me mention one more: Truffaut wrote a treatment, a sequel to The 400 Blows that shows an alternate life for Doinel, flitting in and out of juvenile institutions, serving in the military--a treatment that was eventually turned into Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. Can you see Leaud's Doinel transformed into Belmondo's Michel Poiccard? Can you see Godard's feature debut as the true sequel to Truffaut's feature debut, Doinel running past the freeze-frame that ends The 400 Blows to flout for the rest of his brief life both social laws and narrative conventions alike? Mind you I've got no documentary basis to support this idea...but the mind nevertheless boggles.


You hear the name "Max Ophuls" and think luxurious melodramas like Letter to an Unknown Woman and The Earrings of Madame de...; great noir doesn't readily come to mind.

And yet The Reckless Moment is great noir. You might guess the radical angles, the menacing shadows, the sense of gargantuan urban architecture looming over hapless bits of humanity characteristic of noir would be anathema to Ophuls, but no--he takes his long tracking shots and retools them just so, their trademark qualities subtly transmuted to suit the genre: instead of smooth elegance (the camera's catlike glide), a sense of urgency; instead of displays of decadence (sailing past outspread candelabra, waltzing couples, towering potted palms), lean and malevolent inevitability.

Bennett's Lucia Harper is matriarch of the house holding fort while her husband is on a business trip, rushing from kitchen to living room to boathouse out back to resolve each domestic crisis with a kind of distracted competence--'distracted' because her mind is on other matters: her daughter may have killed her boyfriend, and someone is demanding money to keep from going to the newspapers.

Lucia dashes here and there with Ophuls following and not once does he pull back, not once does he explicitly clue you in but somewhere along the way you realize what this life is to her: a mousetrap, an elaborate inextricable trap designed to keep her paying her bills and instructing her housemaid and upbraiding her kids--all the thousand little things that make up the domestic life forming links in a chain caught tight around her neck, choking off her breath. Lucia races faster and faster just to stay at the center of her typical upper middle-class life, and before we know it the camera's stately drift has turned into an accelerating slide towards some unknown doom.

That's Lucia's life through her eyes: through the eyes of blackmailer Martin Donnelly (James Mason, magnificent as usual), her life means something else entirely--the road not taken, the kind of ordinary family life he never had a chance to create, much less enjoy. When Lucia and Martin talk you get the sense of two diametrically opposing points of view struggling not just to dominate but understand the other; you get the sense that Martin envies the absent Mr. Harper's position in Lucia's heart, that Lucia covets the disreputable freedom Martin (she believes) enjoys. 

Ophuls doing noir--unlikely, you say? But on the evidence of the film at hand, he makes the mismatch not just workable, but effortless, natural. Tragic that he wasn't given the chance to make more.

Family guy

Once got into a discussion on the merits of Kurosawa and Ford; the proposal was made that Kurosawa took what Ford did and improved on it. 

"I don't think so," said I (paraphrasing from memory); "Did his own variation, sure, canted the Fordian angles a little more, held the camera on the action a little longer, cut the footage a little faster. 

"What Ford did well that's inimitably his is that sense of a teeming community, of ordinary life bursting the frames of the movie screen. Kurosawa could do that to some extent--Seven Samurai, Lower Depths, Dodeskaden--but he always had to be dramatic about it. Ford's communities are often calm villages and towns that you recognized as part of the rural West (or at least the West of our collective imagination); the turmoil was often brought in by the hero, was eventually resolved, often in favor of the community. With Kurosawa there was often an intrinsic flaw to the community against which the hero struggled; what was important was the hero's struggle, not his eventual integration (or failure to do so).

"Ford delights in the community and the commonplace, where Kurosawa focuses on the individual and the extreme."

Which brings us to the wonderfully understated, horribly underseen Wagon Master. Where in most of Ford's films we find the community in place and having already put down roots (Innisfree in The Quiet Man, a Welsh village in How Green Was My Valley, Tombstone in My Darling Clementine) in this film the community--a group of Mormons--has been forcibly uprooted and told to move out. They plan to settle in the San Juan Valley in Utah, but have no means or skills to reach it till they meet a pair of horsetraders (Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr.) who agree to help. 

There isn't much of a story: the traders lead the Mormons, the Mormons intone a few songs (the film is a trove of old Western melodies), the wagons trundle forward. Gradually the realization comes to you that this, not the Mormons' quest for a new home, is the heart of the picture: lyrically shot and staged imagery of wagons rolling across the magnificent Moab landscape, of ordinary folk cooking and bathing and sitting together at camp, singing--a visual poem if you will of the great American migration westward, as seen through the eyes of the thoroughly ordinary people who did the migrating. 

A medicine show joins them featuring the prominently displayed charms (see above) of Joanne Dru, and the showfolk and Mormon folk and horse traders bond cheerfully, with much comic friction. Later the Cleggs, a family of outlaws, step in, figuring to hide amongst their number from a pursuing posse--and yes, there is tension, there is danger, but an odd thing happens: they start bonding with the Mormons too (about as open and charming a depiction of that branch of Christianity, incidentally, as any I've seen on the big screen). Not freely, no, and of course there will be the inevitable showdown, but one effect of travel and hard experience (Ford seems to say) is that even the unlikeliest of folk forge a connection. 

Perhaps the most vivid example of this comes when the wagon train chances upon a Navajo tribe--or rather the tribe chances upon them; the braves gallop into attack, to stop when they learn that the travelers are Mormons. "White men are big thieves," the Navajo chief maintains "Mormons only little ones." He invites them to camp.

Post-supper Navajo and white folk gather and dance in a ring round the firepit, the camera panning from one face to another--a visual summation if you like of what America is all about: races, professions and temperaments of all kinds come together to enjoy the mutual warmth and security of a blazing bonfire.

Suddenly a scream; we don't understand what's being said (and Ford to his credit makes it happen a touch faster than we comprehend) but the offending Clegg is tied to a wagon wheel to be whipped. The men whisper only a few terse words to each other, but their looks speak pages: we are in danger, we need to get out of this alive, but to do so we have to sacrifice one of our own. The fear is palpable and shared, so is the horror at what must be done. 

Aside from being one of the more interesting portraits of Native Americans in a Ford film (the Navajos here remain fully in control,  practice a coherent if rough sense of justice, enjoy a trenchant sense of humor) it's about as intense and memorable an example I can think of of--well, the consequences will be more complex (the Cleggses won't forget the incident, nor will they let the others do so), but for a moment the men form one of Ford's trademark communities, his band of select brothers, responding to stress and crisis the best they can. 


Monday, July 01, 2013

World War Z (Marc Foster), White House Down (Roland Emmerich), The Loves of a Pharaoh (Ernst Lubitsch)


If you lobotomized Steven Soderbergh's Contagion and pumped it full of steroids you'd probably get something better than Marc Foster's latest multimilliondollar extravaganza, where the virus stands (or rather sprints) on a pair of athletic legs and flashes a set of gnashing chompers that never quite stop, even when incinerated. 

Based loosely (very loosely, apparently) on the bestseller by Max Brooks (which I haven't for the record read) the filmmakers have decided to jettison the episodic wide-ranging stories that composed the book (with its implicit criticism of government incompetence and American isolationism) to focus on the heroic (and largely fabricated by the scriptwriters) efforts of one man played by Brad Pitt, who also produced the picture (hence his expanded, pro-active role). 

So whadda we have? Fast zombies--I hate sprinting zombies (as some regular readers may be well aware). Brooks reportedly took his cue from the George Romero films and made his zombies (or 'Zekes,' as they're called here) shuffling carnivores, this being the more realistic alternative as it's hard to believe the undead (or virally infected) would be healthy enough to do a hundred-yard dash, or leap vast chasms, or make like an ant bridge (in this case ant tower) and scale impossibly high walls--they're sick, not super-powered. Not to mention the movie loses the undead's most unsettling quality: their preternatural serenity, their utter indifference to whether the prey will escape or not.

Charles Dickens put it best (from Oliver Twist): 

He could trace its shadow in the gloom, supply the smallest item of the outline, and note how stiff and solemn it seemed to stalk along. He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed--not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell.

Love that phrase "that would have been a relief." Mere mortals and animal pursuers put effort into their hunt; only the supernatural, beyond science and logic, is confident--no matter where the prey goes, no matter what the prey does, the undead will catch up in the end. A zombie moving fast is merely acting out its insecurities; a storyteller who refuses to deal with a proper zombie's patient pursuit is a lazy storyteller, who prefers cheap quickie shocks over the exquisite shiver of mounting dread.

Foster gets his best effects by emulating Dickens; in the hallways of abandoned apartment buildings, in a nighttime airfield, in the stillness of a Zeke-infested laboratory, the eerie silence evoked prior to the attack is far more effective than the attacks themselves, which collapse into a series of shaky-cam footage, edited ADHD style (it's as if the cameraman had turned Zeke as well, and couldn't help convulsing).

Other puzzlers: the Israelis took years building their defenses, then forget to add watch towers and video cameras to the top of their walls? Pitt rescues a Latino boy, who doesn't seem the least bit traumatized about losing his whole family (he seems more plot function than flesh-and blood, the token ethnic hired to make the cast more diverse)? The World Health Organization people spend millions on their state-of-the-art lab, and can't be bothered to put intercoms inside their vaults?

Otherwise--well, there doesn't seem to be an otherwise, and Pitt, who looked as if he was making modest strides forward with Burn After Reading, Moneyball, Tree of Life, and Killing Them Softly, takes a giant leap back. Dead on arrival folks; pay your respects and move on.

White House Dumb

(Warning: plot twists and devices discussed )

"What do they call White House Down in Paris?"

"Die Hard with cheese."

Not a fan of John McTiernan's 'masterpiece' (prefer the Hong Kong action filmmakers active during his heyday) but at least McTiernan was competently versed in the basics of action filmmaking, his sequences coherently staged, shot and cut.  This movie features a far less engaging lead (at least Willis had that jokey regular-dude persona, a leftover from his Moonlighting days) and a pair of criminally underused villains (at least Alan Rickman got to sport a cunningly broad Californian accent). Add Emmerich's mediocre brand of action filmmaking (y'know the drill: mostly shaky-cam footage, edited incoherently) with a generous dollop of digitally enhanced stunts and effects (say what you will about Die Hard, at least most of the stunts were done on-camera).

Channing Tatum plays police officer and former soldier John Cale (why 'Cale?'--because it's good for you?), who's at the right place and time to apply for a job as White House security (terrorists have just taken over, and Cale gets to show his chops); Joey King plays his insufferable daughter, Emily, who's been estranged from him ever since he volunteered to fight in Afghanistan. King's an expressive actress (she plays the China Girl in Oz The Great and Powerful) but she's poorly served by the script here, which presents her as a standard-issue helpless female hostage who thinks more about her political blog's hit counter than about her and her father's safety (she uploads incriminating footage of the terrorists at work, which they promptly view on nationwide TV), and when asked to run whines "I can't leave him!" at the least convenient moment (she makes you want to call out: "Go you dumb kid or you'll get them all killed!").

Intelligence isn't necessarily a requirement in these movies, but White House Down hits a new low: would a president trust a man who's suffered a tremendous personal blow (that may possibly have been said president's fault) to keep running his security operations? Would a villain planning a successful takeover of the White House use such a mix-and-match group of operatives (the Delta Force guy is a good choice but--redneck gun nut?)? Would an earnest do-gooder really be that clueless with regards to the motives of his adversaries and bosses--not suspect that perhaps they would be somehow be involved with each other? Would a Hollywood filmmaker be this shameless, to the point where all that stands between the White House and an incoming bomb-dropping F-22 Raptor is a teenaged pain-in-the-neck doing her flag-twirling routine with the Commander-in-Chief's banner? 

There's the school of thought that says: "it's only a movie; shut up and turn your brain off for a while." I'm happy to hand over my brain to those in charge but before I do I'd like to know just how competent they are--heard horror stories about the last time someone did so and his brain was dropped on the floor where someone slid on the juices. Come to think of it, that might be what had happened to Emmerich and company, right before they made this housewreck of a picture.

Too much woman, not enough girl

Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of a Pharaoh would come as a surprise to those who know him mostly by his lighter-than-air comedies. Not a lot of humor in this film, except for the disturbingly buffoonish performance by Paul Wegener in blackface as Samlak, king of Ethiopia. The film is really a love triangle between the young Egyptian Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), who loves the escaped Greek slave Thonis (Dagny Servaes) who loves him back, who in turn is loved (unrequitedly) by Amenes (Emil Jannings), pharaoh of Egypt. 

It's a neat little melodrama where Jannings plays yet another bastard, a despotic ruler who is willing to threaten the life of Theonis' lover if she doesn't marry him. The girl here remains relatively spotless; it's her effect on men and not anything she wants in particular that causes all the trouble--every time men look at her this blank expression comes into their faces, as if their minds were being sapped (judging from the photo above she does have some appeal, if not necessarily actual allure).

What does convince is Jannings as the pharaoh. Jannings has often been accused of being a ham, not without cause; here though he delivers an early version of the fixated male that he will bring to even sharper detail on the big screen eight years later, in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel; watching his bewilderment, as if some spell had taken over his body and he can't understand why, you start looking at Servaes again, wondering if maybe she's some kind of enchantress after all. It's more his destructive obsessiveness than any obvious sexuality on Servaes' part that validates her fatale status.

Lubitsch films the gargantuan sets and ten-thousand cast battle sequences with impeccable taste, if not any especial flair--you can tell he's no D.W. Griffith, with a determination to write "history with lighting." More memorable is the love triangle, which flails melodramatically for most of the picture before plunging finally into disaster. By film's end several thoughts stay in mind: that the girl for all her sexual purity and relative innocence stands at some level justly accused of being the source of all Egypt's troubles (making you wonder just how pure or at least sincere she really was); that Ramphis for all his sense of honor and bravery is perfectly capable of betraying father and country for the sake of a woman, like any lovestruck hero; and that Janning's Amenes for all his cruelty sups full of the pathos of his situation (from pharaoh to outcast and back), and finally attains the dignity of a truly tragic figure. Not perhaps Lubitsch's best work (I'm personally partial to voting Trouble in Paradise to that lofty status, though any half-dozen titles including The Shop Around the Corner constantly vie for the position in my head), but an impressive, sobering work nevertheless.